Monday, July 12, 2010

Books: Laffite The Prince

Two young men were among those who watched. Both were in their early twenties. One was Renato Beluche, who would soon become famous as a privateer captain on the Gulf of Mexico. He would operate in defiance of American law. Another was an individual with striking Gallic features... His name was Jean Laffite.

This is from one of the first paragraphs in Jack C. Ramsay, Jr.'s Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates. Published in 1996 it is a slim, well-written biography that touches on all aspects of the now legendary pirate Laffite. It is heavily researched; the extensive bibliography at the end is a treasure trove of books, papers and pamphlets on privateering and politics in the early 19th century. Just reading the above certainly gives you an idea of why I love this book.

Ramsay, although he does give excellent character sketches of men like Beluche, Dominique Youx and Pierre Laffite, focuses his work entirely on Jean. This is an unfortunate blind spot in Ramsay's book. To the point where, beneath a reproduction of a warrant for Pierre Laffite's arrest (the name is clearly printed and legible on the original and in the photo) he notes the warrant has been issued against Jean.

Much of Ramsay's theorizing is based purely on records he has uncovered and used as a jumping off point. He notes, for instance, that Jean must have spent a good portion of his youth in and around New Orleans. Otherwise, how would he know the backwaters and bayous so well? He even goes a step further, revealing documentation of a Creole named Aubry who married a widow from San Domingue in the late 1780s. She brought a child from her previous marriage to the union: "Juan Enrico, hijo legitimo de Juan Lafitte". The problems with this and other speculations in the book are many. What of Pierre, who we know was Jean's brother? (Ramsay simply tells us Pierre was raised elsewhere but gives nothing to verify the claim). What about the spelling of the last name? "Lafitte" is a common French Creole name, both in Haiti and Louisiana. "Laffite" is fairly specific to the Gironde region of France and not common in the New World at all. While the idea that the brothers didn't suddenly appear in Louisiana in 1809 makes perfect sense, the backup for this supposition falls flat.

While dates, people and places are consistently accurate in the book, Ramsay gets sidetracked frequently by engaging in an almost leering interest in Laffite's love life whenever possible. The usual suspects come into play here: Madeleine Rigaud whose relationship with Jean is unknown and Governor Claiborne's second or third wife ends up on the list too. Both stories are familiar to Laffite scholars but the one about the Governor's wife is most probably a tall tale which Ramsay has given too much credence and attention. The language of the seduction, as Ramsay writes it, is lovely. The thought is, however, laughable especially when we recall that Claiborne's third wife was Renato Beluche's first cousin which seems almost incestuous.

Finally, Ramsay embraces the death theory that has Jean Laffite succumbing to fever somewhere near Sisal in the Yucatan in the early 1820's. He is buried there to this day, we are told, though his grave is probably now under water. Pierre simply disappears into the dense fog that seems to envelope Ramsay's hero. He is not with his brother on Isla Mujeres when Jean falls rather ignominiously dead. Beluche and Youx have by now been written out of the play. There is, though, a woman: "Laffite's 'widow, a senora del Norte of Mobile.'" Left behind and in distress.

Ramsay's opus should be taken for what it is: an excellent attempt at pulling the reality of Jean Laffite's life out of the murk of legend. So much cannot be known about a man who tried in his own lifetime to remain mysterious and lied with glee about his own origins. People like Laffite are hard on historians. But Ramsay's book is full of good research and beautiful prose. He even takes up the issue of the Journal of Jean Lafitte and concludes, in the end, that it is in fact a falsehood. I cannot agree more with Ramsay on this point. He notes that, though the Journal may not have been written as a deliberate fraud and it's writer may very well have believed he was Laffite, it cannot be used for legitimate research. Well put, indeed.

Unfortunately out of print at this writing, nice copies of Jean Laffite, Prince of Pirates can be found at Amazon and in local bookstores and libraries. Keep an eye out; it is a book worth reading for pleasure or research or both.

Header: LIFE photo of Yul Brynner rehearsing the roll of Jean Laffite for the movie The Buccaneer


Ozarklorian said...

Actually, in the Laffite brothers' time, it wasn't uncommon nor regarded with distaste for first cousins to marry. Most of the plantation families around New Orleans intermarried with each other. As for Jean Laffite and his supposed romance with Gov. Claiborne's wife, Susanna Bosque, no proof has ever been found. I asked Jack Ramsay point blank about his source for the story when i saw him at the book signing in Galveston many years ago. Nothing concrete. Incidentally, after Claiborne died in 1817, Susanna remarried to John Grymes and became quite wealthy, later separating from Grymes and moving to Long Island.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Always fun to write about the brothers Laffite (not to mention your Uncle Beluche and Dominique Youx)... Plus a cool picture of my distant relative Yul Brynner is always good, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Ozarklorian and Timmy! Thanks for your much appreciated input.

Ozarklorian: considereing that young women frequently married at 15 (as Susanna did to Governor Claiborne, then in his 30's) the cousin thing is almost excusable, isn't it?

Thank you for your input too regarding Mr. Ramsay; that's interesting. And, though I knew Susanna married John Randolph Grymes after Claiborne's death, I'd no idea she ended up in Rhode Island. That seems like the worst part of her story. I'd much rather be in NOLA ;)

Timmy: It's always good times when the Baratarians are aboard and what's better than another dashing picture of your cousin Yul? Nothing.